Hold the front page: Charlie Hebdo and Islam


Complex questions to be answered

If there were easy answers to difficult questions, the world would be a lot calmer place. But we live with complexity, and now have to face moral and ethical issues that previous generations have been able to dodge.

That can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the aftermath of the Paris massacres last week.

The response of Charlie Hebdo to the slaughter of its journalists – depicting a crying prophet Mohammad on its front page, holding a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” – has reignited the debate about the freedom of the press versus the risk of giving offence.

It has also fuelled a debate about whether other media outlets should reprint the cartoon, and risk offending Muslims too. Some, such as The Guardian and The Independent, have chosen to do so. Others – most notably the BBC – have chosen not.

To the eyes of a western liberal, the cartoon is a powerful statement that shows Mohammad on the side of the victims.

But to most in the Muslim community, the very depiction of the prophet – in any light – is sacrilegious.

Given the atrocity committed in the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week, it is difficult to see how the magazine could have responded in any other way. Defiance in the face of adversity is part of the western cultural DNA. The right to offend is a litmus test of the strength of our freedom of expression.

While it is still a criminal offence in many countries to lampoon the head of state, in Europe it is almost obligatory.

People in power need to be taken down a peg or two to keep them human, and that is one of the roles of the journalist. If you are on the receiving end, it can be painful, and often it is unfair. But, by and large, it is good for society.

When you see what some powerful people get up to with a critical press snapping at their heels, you can only imagine how excessive their behaviour would be if they were left alone.

In ancient Rome, returning military heroes were joined in their carriages by a slave. In one hand he held the laurel crown above their heads, whispering all the while “memento homo” – remember you are just a man. The journalist plays that role today.

In different times, what appeared in the pages of small-circulation magazines such as Charlie Hebdo would not have had ramifications elsewhere. But the internet has changed everything. Today, nothing is local.

Journalists have always given offence, and always will. But never before have they had the capacity to offend on such a large scale.

The profession has to recognise that; and journalists have to make their judgments accordingly. We need to look again at our news values and the decisions we make.

Charlie Hebdo has made its decision; and it has done so in the full knowledge that what it put on its front page this week would be seen around the world.

It is to be hoped that most Muslims will see the cartoon in the context of the hurt and pain inflicted on the staff of the magazine, rather than as a gratuitous insult. Many clearly will not.

The response to last week’s events has been impressive – leaders of western and Arab nations walked side by side in Saturday’s march of solidarity in Paris. They were right to do so.

But it is also fair to ask where they were after the massacre of 145 people – 132 of them children in the Pakistani army school in Peshawar.

Will they be flying into Nigeria to mourn the 20 people killed in this weekend’s suicide bombing by Boko Haram? And how will they – how will we all – respond to the next atrocity and the next?

Somehow or other, we must transcend the debate over western liberal values and where they clash with Islamic traditions.

We need to find a bridge between the west and Islam that allows us together to confront the extremists who are killing westerners in their tens and Muslims in their thousands.

Shutting the door after the horse has bolted, prime ministers and presidents are now closeted with their national security advisers. Their time would be better spent focusing on healing the division between west and east. That is where the long-term solution to our present difficulties will be found.